Jun 022017

Sometimes teachers or students ask us a question and I think, ‘Oh we can answer that quickly’. But then when I start, I realise there’s a lot to explain. The phrase ‘of course’ is one of those!
This time the question came from Saraswathi in India and they said:

Hi Vicki and Jay. You have produced good videos. So far, I have not understood when we use “of course”. Could you produce a video about ‘of course’.

Thank you so much for asking us this Saraswathi. It was a great question!
The thing is, ‘of course’ is not always polite. I expect other teachers have experienced this too. We’ve asked a question and our student has answered ‘Yes, of course’, but it wasn’t quite right. In fact sometimes it was down right rude! Here is our video about why that can happen.

 Posted by at 9:01 pm
Dec 272016

One of the things I love about video is it allows us to present language in context. We’re not limited to a classroom setting and we can venture outside and show a variety of people and different situations. We can show the relationship of the speakers and who has the power and that matters because it affects the language choices we make. So in my view, video is a wonderful medium for teaching pragmatics.

Lots of pragmatic research has been done on requests, not surprisingly, because they pose all sorts of potential for loss of face. We manage the possible social pitfalls in some interesting ways with pre-moves and indirectness, and of course anglo-Englishes have all the peculiar whimperatives structures like ‘Could you possibly…?’, and ‘Would you mind…?’

So I’ve been wanting to make some videos about requests for ages. Here’s an introductory video on the subject of directives that takes a broad sweep view of three basic ways we get people to do what we want. Hope you like it!

 Posted by at 6:51 pm
Sep 062016

It’s taken me years to work out how to teach negative questions. They’re so tricky! Here’s why…

1. The answers aren’t logical.

If someone says ‘Will you sit down?’, you say ‘yes’ if you plan to sit down. So why do you say ‘yes’ if they ask ‘Won’t you sit down?’ Shouldn’t it be ‘No, I will’?
There are other languages like Russian and Japanese where they are more logical about it. I didn’t understand this when I first started teaching in Tokyo and I caused lots of confusion.

Me: Can I have everyone’s homework?
(Hiroshi looks embarrassed)
Me: Haven’t you done your homework, Hiroshi?
Hiroshi: Yes (meaning ‘Yes, I haven’t done it’)
Me: Oh good, can I have it then?
(Hiroshi looks flustered)
Me: Sorry? Didn’t you say you’d done it?
Hiroshi: Yes (meaning ‘I didn’t say I’d done it’)
Me: Have you left it at home then?

When I went back to the UK, it took me a couple of years to re-learn how to answer negative questions the English way again. And actually, if you listen carefully you’ll sometimes hear native speakers answer them the other way round too.

2. If you use them in the wrong context, you can sound like you’re nagging.

In some Central European languages a negative form makes a question more polite. This can happen in English too, as in ‘Won’t you have another cup of tea?’ But more commonly we use negative questions to indicate that something is not quite what we expect it to be, and that means we can use them to express (mild) irritation. Compare ‘Can you hurry up?’ and ‘Can’t you hurry up?’ Which one is
In Slovak you might say things like ‘Haven’t you finished yet?’, and ‘Aren’t you ready yet?’ to enquire about someone’s progress when you want to sound extra pleasant. But if a native English speaker hears this they’ll think ‘Give us a chance!’ or ‘What are you breathing down my neck for?’ There’s potential for relationship damage here.

So all in all it would be jolly nice if we didn’t have to teach negative questions but there’s no getting round the fact that students will hear them and have to respond. So what to do? Well, let me show you how I now teach them…

 Posted by at 4:09 pm
Jul 292013

A class activity – write a transcript for either or both of these forthcoming movies.

Jay and I write the transcripts for the movie trailers at Simple English Videos and I think generally we do a pretty good job between us. I’m aware that we sometimes make mistakes, but it’s handy that I’m British and he’s American. There are phrases I struggle with in American movies that he gets and vice versa.

A few weeks back we had a very kind offer from Tomasz,  a teacher in Poland. He was teaching an advanced pronunciation course and wondered if we’d like him to ask his students to transcribe some trailers for us. ‘Oh, yes please’, we said and I sent over a list.  What I should have done is explained that we have to turn the videos over pretty quickly and given a deadline, so in the event I had to publish the movies before the transcripts arrived. Duh! But looking at the transcripts gave me an idea.  Tamasz’ students’ versions sometimes differed from ours in tiny ways – and sometimes I think they (not us!) got it right.

So it gave me an idea. I’ve just posted two movie trailer videos with NO transcript on the website and invited students to provide one. The deadline is midnight on Friday 16th August and we will be publishing the videos with the clickable transcripts we make (after reading any other versions) on August 19th and 20th.  We’ve no idea whether any classes might want to try it, but it seems like such a good listening task to me – either for classwork or homework. Plus hopefully we will all wind up with a better transcript!

A big thank you to Tomasz, Borys, and Sara for inspiring this idea and supporting the Simple English Videos site! It’s much appreciated.

 Posted by at 8:51 am
Jun 212013

Bad-model Good-model videos have a long history in management and business English training. The first time I came across the genre was in a series of management training videos from Video Arts (of John Cleese fame) but the technique was later employed very successfully in business English by Derek Utley and Jeremy Comfort of York Associates. Their early videos were picked up and remade by OUP and perhaps some of you will remember the resulting lovely’ Effective’ skills series? Those videos inspired me to play around with the genre myself so back in the 90s I wrote a little video called ‘Play it Again Sam’ for OUP.

But I digress. The way these videos work is you see someone performing a business task, but very badly. The class has to identify what they did wrong and decide how they could have done things better. They then act out a new and better version of the scenario before they get to see a second video where things go well. And if they haven’t got fed up by then, they can go on to compare the ‘good’ version they created with the ‘good’ version in the second video.

I wondered if it would be possible to do something similar again, but much shorter. Could we get something down to a minute? We couldn’t, but we got pretty close. Here are our attempts and I hope you find them useful for your small talk lessons.



I’ve now made these videos available with clickable transcripts (great for making comprehension tasks) on Simple English Videos dot com here and here.


 Posted by at 6:45 am
May 312013

As business English teachers, we often find ourselves helping our students to prepare to give a presentation. Critiquing them requires thinking about a lot more than did they use the best language and we have to think about much broader issues like did they engage and what sort of impression did they make and did they make their points in the most effective way.
The guy who emcees the TED presentations has seen a LOT of them – good ones and bad. He shares his thoughts here: It’s a jolly good read

 Posted by at 11:28 pm
Apr 152010
Welcome to part two of my scrapping the lists journey (intro here, part one here.) My question here is what about ditching lists of phrases if we’re teaching unplugged, dogme style?

Functional phrase lists look tempting if we want a materials-lite lesson – after all a list is less dense than a text. And students want something to take home, don’t they? But myself, I’ve sworn off functions lists, unless they come with context. It goes back to my previous dilemma:

In the past I’ve dished out lists of functional phrases and told my students to use them. But they don’t, or worse, I find myself wincing because they do use them, but inappropriately.

So I’d rather give students worksheets to take home based on what they’ve said – so there’s context built in.

Like a lot of business English teachers, I spend a lot of class time listening to students talking, making notes, and then trying to draw their attention to other ways they might have said things. I used to work with a great teacher called Rick Baldwin who wrote worksheets on the fly, based on what his students were saying. He’d run to the photocopier at the end of class, and then dish them out to the students for homework that he’d review the next day. We were intrigued and got him to run a workshop to show us what he was up to. I thought it was pretty cool. Over the years I’ve modified his ideas, but they still lie at the heart of how I generally work today. (Thank you, Rick)

3D Bar Graph Meeting by lumaxart.So the worksheets are based on the students output. Years ago they were largely about pronunciation, grammar and lexis but over time they’ve become peppered with more discourse related questions along the lines of “Can-you-say-what-you-said-better?” and “Here-are-some-ways-I-might-have-said-it”. And a lot gets repeated across classes. For example, my students often use performative verbs more than native speakers, so I’ll often find myself scheduling some explicit teaching about how native speakers use them – just so they know.

There’s an exception to do with pragmaticky things though. If a student says something a bit weird in social terms, or maybe aggressive, or perhaps politically incorrect (remember I’m teaching in ‘merica now, where folks tend to more sensitive to that) I try to jump in. So I’ll interrupt the flow and ask what went on – on the spot.

LuMaxArt Graduation Concept by lumaxart.And sometimes I wish I hadn’t. But if you leave it till later, a weird phenomena can strike – collective class amnesia. It’s hard for everyone to recall. And I can’t blame them for feigning a bad memory. It’s easy to accept your classmates will make grammar or vocabulary errors, but if they say something socially awkward, it could signal a personality problem.

And often it isn’t a personality thing so much as a cultural thing. But it’s interesting because I suspect we could wipe the floor with our students for dropping third person ‘s’s and their classmates wouldn’t bat an eyelid. But challenge someone about breaking a social rule and it gets tricky. Personally, I try to adopt an on-the-spot and factual approach when I challenge, like it’s a cultural information issue – whether it is or isn’t.

SpectrumG00107_www.lumaxart.com by lumaxart.I think I may be blessed with a curious non native speaker advantage working in the US. I get the feeling that I’m allowed to talk about the social customs and rules that I see going on around me like I’m a foreigner with my students, and I suspect my students are more forthcoming as a result. For example, I can’t remember many students telling me that they thought Brits were arrogant or standoffish when I was working in the UK, though quite possibly they did. But since I’ve come here, I’ve had some students confiding that they find Americans superficial. I certainly don’t think American’s are superficial but I can see how it might appear that way if you’re not familiar with how different politeness styles operate. And once things are out on the table, I can present my take on things and hopefully we can make better sense of what’s happening to us here. I think this might be a secret advantage that all non-native speaker teachers share that doesn’t get talked about nearly enough. Sometimes it’s – wow – priceless.

But there are some dilemmas for Business English teachers here. To learn new language students need to be exposed to new language – which means via listening or reading. I need present context briefly. All ideas welcome. I know I’m still a long way from having all the answers to all this.

You might also want to check out my posts on:

How about some nice
Scrapping the lists
Some list alternatives 1

And for more on pragmatics and sociolinguistics, check out my Learning to speak ‘merican blog which explores how meanings get conveyed (or not) in greater depth, along with issues like politeness and directness.

 Posted by at 10:57 am
Mar 312010
I wrote a post on scrapping functional phrase lists that you can find here. Commenters have provided some great ideas like working with movie scripts and larger chunks of discourse. Thank you! I said I’d give some examples (Eeek!) So to continue what seems to be becoming a little series, I’d like to start small and work up. This is my longest ever post, so you might want to grab a cup of coffee.

Here are a couple of examples of small changes I’ve been making to traditional functional phrase lists. I’ve been experimenting with these because I wanted to:

  1. look at language in context. Context changes meanings. If you point to a cabbage and say ‘That’s a nice one’ to the assistant in a grocery store, it means ‘I’ll take it it’. But make the same comment while pointing at a picture when you’re strolling round the National Gallery with a friend, and nobody’s going to expect you to buy it.
  2. be a bit fussy about what language we’re targetting. Phrases like ‘I don’t agree’, or ‘I propose we…’, are infrequent items in spoken English (more on that here). There are more frequent phrases we’d want to draw attention to first. And if we decide we want to look at them anyway (maybe because they keep coming out of our students’ mouths?) we might want to make sure we’d highlight their limitations of use. Which brings me to…
  3. impart usage information. So rather than saying ‘learn this list’ –also give information on appropriacy and tasks that explore how they are used. I think a lot of the challenge with speech acts is about recognizing the intent of the speakers. So getting students to consider strategies speakers are using often seems like a good way to go to me.

Here’s a fairly traditional list of suggestions phrases, but rather than single phrases, it’s a list of adjacency pairs.

For me, significant changes are:

  1. the language is presented within the larger context of a longer listening text. (The students complete some of the phrases while they’re listening.)
  2. it’s demo-ing high frequency spoken forms rather than forms that would be more common in written English like ‘I suggest we…’ ‘I propose we…’ ‘I recommend…’
  3. because we’ve got adjacency pairs, the students get to see the responses alongside. We can still ask questions about form like ‘which suggestion form is followed by –ing’, just as we might with a traditional phrase list. But there’s an in-built benefit to the adjacency pairs – they allow us to compare some different strategies folks are using when they respond.  It’s pretty easy to agree with someone else’s suggestion – no threat to face there. Disagreeing is trickier and we commonly employ strategies like hesitating, questioning, or changing the subject. If we list adjacency pairs rather than single phrases, we can ask the students follow up questions about what strategies the speakers are using when they respond, and to compare the strategies to those employed in their own language.

And onto my second example. The idea here is that what we say is one thing, but when we say it is another. What’s appropriate at one time may be inappropriate at another. So here’s a traditional list, but with some basic usage information added.

It gets easier to discuss speakers’ intentions, politeness issues and discourse as students advance in level, but I don’t see the sense of waiting until students are high intermediate or advanced. Both of these examples come from Lifestyle pre-intermediate (Copyright Longman Pearson 2010).

But there’s a paradox here, because in some ways it flies in the face of what we might see as good teaching practice. This isn’t a ‘learning-by-doing’ method. There’s explicit instruction going on here about usage before we go into a role play or or whatever.

There’s a pretty general consensus in the pragmatics literature that we should teach features of discourse more overtly – so point them out and raise them for discussion. Research evidence suggests we can’t necessarily expect our students to pick up the social rules speakers are following in the same way that they might pick up new vocabulary or grammar structures. I don’t think we can impose our social rules on our students, but I think we owe it to them to tell them what they are, so they can make informed choices.

Also, in both the examples above, the phrases are demonstrated in use in a longer listening text. That’s not going to work in a dogme-style lesson based primarily around student input. It’s another challenge and I hope to post on that another day…

You might also want to check out my posts on:
How about some nice
How about some nice
Scrapping the lists
Some list alternatives 2

And for more on pragmatics and sociolinguistics, check out my Learning to speak ‘merican blog which explores how meanings get conveyed (or not) in greater depth, along with issues like politeness and directness.

 Posted by at 5:38 am
Mar 182010

Here’s an example of the kinds of functional phrase lists I used to teach with and write:

But for some years now, I’ve been tearing them up and hunting new alternatives. Why? Well, they just don’t seem logical to me.

It’s not so much what’s in the lists that bothers me. I think we can fix a lot of  that these days with good corpora. But even with high frequency phrases from well suited corpora, I still have a problem with the lists. I just don’t like the way the phrases are extracted from their context. 

Now if it’s grammar we’re teaching, I can sort of see how it’s a different matter. Isolating phrases might help if we want students to look at a structure and see how we can manipuate it. But when when we’re teaching speech acts like agreeing, disagreeing, greeting, requesting, inviting, etc, we need to be imparting usage information.

Think of all the times you’ve dished out lists like the ones above and told your students to use them in a role play. And then think of all the times you’ve winced when you’ve heard them use them inappropriately.

I can’t see a way to solve that problem if we extract phrases from context. Something pretty fundamental about conversation is it’s co-constructed. You can’t have one on your own, unless you’re like my ‘merican dentist. Maybe you remember him? Here’s a story about him that I blogged sometime back:


My dentist works in a tall building at 15th and Market in Philly. He got in the elevator one day and there was another passenger already inside. They didn’t know one another, but they made eye contact and acknowledged each other.

As he hit his floor button she said ‘I can’t believe it’s still raining’.

‘Yes, it’s terrible’, he said. ‘Really bad’.

‘When’s it going to stop?’ she said.

‘Well, the forecast’s not looking too good’

‘So, is it going to affect your plans?’

‘Yeah,  we were thinking of going to the shore this weekend, but I don’t expect we will now.’

After a few more turns he arrived at his floor and stepped out. As he left, he noticed his fellow passenger was wearing a cell phone earpiece. She had been talking to someone else but he had been answering all her questions.

We’ve got 3 sets of adjacency pairs here, where someone says something that demands a response from someone else. Adjacency pairs are the building blocks of conversation. If I say ‘How are you?’, then you have to say ‘I’m fine thanks’. And you can deviate a bit, and say ‘Not too bad’, ‘Could be better’ or even ‘None of your business’. But there are limits to how far you can deviate without me thinking you’re a bit weird. And if you don’t answer – well,  that will mean something too.

So I reckon there have to be better ways to illustrate how speech acts work. For me, it’s out with the lists and in with adjacency pairs and longer tracts that can demo how conversations develop over time. And I hope I’ll find more ways as I carry down this path, and maybe some of you are trying to do something similar?

So any thoughts anyone? Am I throwing a baby out with some bath water? And if not, any good ideas on how to bury those lists?

You might also want to check out my posts on:
How about some nice
Some list alternatives 1
Some list alternatives 2

And for more on pragmatics and sociolinguistics, check out my Learning to speak ‘merican blog which explores how meanings get conveyed (or not) in greater depth, along with issues like politeness and directness.

Image by Ilco

IATEFL conference 2010

 Posted by at 5:12 am